Offshore fishing on the Alabama Gulf Coast

Winter Fish Deep, But February Brings Sheepshead

For the diehard anglers along the Alabama Gulf Coast, the weather won’t keep them off the water during the colder months. 

Father and son catching sheepshead on Alabama's beaches

Those anglers will concentrate on the deeper water along the coast to find a few speckled trout, redfish, black drum and a few other inshore species.

Those anglers will find that deeper water and fish slow and steady to find that occasional bite from the fish made sluggish by the cold temperatures.

However, when the new year's first warm spell arrives, everybody will be headed for the nearshore structure to find the first reliable bite of the year. 

Sheepshead spawn in the nearshore waters during the early spring before spreading out along the Alabama Gulf Coast. Before the spawn, the fish spend most of their time around inshore structure and feed on barnacles and any other crustaceans it can find. Sheepshead sport some serious front teeth to chisel barnacles off structure and to crack the shells of any crustacean it considers food.

Sheepshead are often found around rock and concrete jetties and pilings but don’t forget about another habitat the sheepshead call home this time of year – petroleum platforms, bridges and oyster reefs. 

Sheepshead will hit readily hit live shrimp and fiddler crabs, which most bait shops on the Alabama coast will have in stock when the sheepshead bite begins. But take anything for granted. Call the bait shop before you hook up the boat to find out what is available. Fresh dead shrimp can work just as well at times. Or you can buy some oysters and cut them into pieces to use for bait. Just understand that sheepshead are bait stealers extraordinaire, so oysters don’t last long on the hook.

If you make a cast into a likely sheepshead spot and don’t get a bite within a couple of minutes, you might as well reel it in and find a new piece of bait because you have been robbed.

And always carry plenty of terminal tackle like sinkers, leaders and hooks because you are going to lose some tackle when you’re fishing around barnacle-encrusted rocks, pilings or petroleum platforms. 

Sheepshead fishing off Alabama's coast

 

If the water is relatively clear, I start out with 10- or 12-pound line. If I keep getting cut off, I’ll move up to a 15-pound-test. Fluorocarbon line also handles the abrasion better than monofilament.

I use No. 2 to 1/0 hooks but of the 2x or 3x variety. You need a strong hook to deal with the structure and the sheepshead’s bony mouth. A fine wire hook just won’t cut it when you set the hook hard enough to penetrate that tough mouth.

You’re going to need a rod with a backbone to be able to get the fish out of the structure as soon as possible, but you need enough sensitivity to feel the bite, which can be very light at times. If you don’t set the hook at the first tick, you’ll be rebaiting.

Sheepshead have large heads, which means you need to catch a decent size fish to have a good filet. Sheepshead take a little work to clean, but the results are great with white, delicate filets that can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Of course, the old favorite of fried filets is hard to beat. Dredge the filets in your favorite fish fry mix and drop in 350-degree peanut oil until golden brown. You can also pan-fry the fish dusted with Greek seasoning and all-purpose flour for a great alternative.

You can prepare a faux West Indies salad that is delicious by boiling the sheepshead with a little crab boil. After cooking, let the filets cool completely before flaking the flesh into chunks that mimic lump crab meat. Mix with chopped onions, chopped red bell pepper, and either Italian dressing or oil and cider vinegar. Add salt and pepper and you’ve got a  faux crab salad that is worthy of any dinner table

Alabama’s daily bag limit on sheepshead is 10 fish per person with a 12-inch minimum size. Frankly, you won’t get much of a filet from fish under 15 inches, so throw the small ones back to catch next year.

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David Rainer Blogger
David Rainer (2 Posts)
David Rainer has written about the great outdoors on the Alabama Gulf Coast for more than 20 years. For 14 of those years, he covered the many fishing opportunities on the Gulf Coast as outdoors…